Before I came to Rwanda, I spent a week following The New Times, Rwanda’s online newspaper, to get a sense for where the country is today. The impression that I reached was that in the 17 years since the genocide, all conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi had been resolved and that everyone was making a collaborative effort to move towards peaceful relations. In my mind, Rwanda was this utopia where, through collaborative efforts, everyone could live in harmony. I’m realizing slowly that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Since the genocide, Rwandans have ceased to use the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” unless they’re referencing “The Genocide Against the Tutsi,” the strict title of the genocide (as deemed by the government). Some people really support this movement because it reduces the labels that one can place on others, labels that actually contributed to the genocide itself. However, I have a few problems with this policy.
I get really frustrated in America when we shy away from calling someone “black” in describing people or in conversation. When I hear someone referred to as “black” it’s usually framed in a context that treats the term as though it’s pejorative. It’s as if it’s offensive the mention the color of someone’s skin. My white friends seem to feel this way because they’re pointing out something “different” about someone. I’ve always thought it’s ridiculous that we can’t even use words relating to race. Most people are so worried about being offended they they avoid discussion of race altogether. But how can you have a reasonable discussion about race relations if you can’t even use the words? It’s like when someone says “I don’t see the color of people’s skin.” Of course they do. It’s the first thing they see. And by not acknowledging it, you fail to acknowledge what makes people uniquely themselves.
I promise this relates to Rwanda….
In my mind it’s very much the same principle. How can Rwanda move past the tragedy of 1994 if you can’t even say the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi”? How can you have a meaningful dialogue without them? I understand the movement toward accepting that Rwandans are Rwandans and nothing else, but if you can’t say the words, aren’t you building a fence around a central part of the discussion?
I was talking to one of my host siblings the other day about the implications of people calling me a “muzungu” and I was trying to explain to him why I don’t necessarily take offense to it. He said it’s the only time in Rwanda that it is acceptable to label someone by appearance because you can’t do that with Hutu and Tutsi. His exact words were, “You can’t call someone a Hutu because they are a human. You can’t call a human any other names.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% not saying that we should fixate on potentially divisive markers like race. I’m only saying that we need to have a dialogue to acknowledge the tensions and issues that still exist (and they do still exist). To do so, we need to use the words. How else do we resist repeating history?